Kinsale Drake, who is Dinè of the Navajo Mountain Drakes, calls herself a book nerd — a condition that developed as a kid growing up in southern Utah.
So launching the NDN Girls Book Club, which aims to bring Indigenous authors and readers together, is a dream come true.
Drake, a recent Yale graduate. grew up part-time in Navajo Mountain. She has taught writing workshops in Salt Lake City, and her own work as a poet ties back to Utah’s landscape and her grandmother’s house.
“That was where I grew up loving books,” Drake said. “My parents would collect all of our childhood books and put a bookshelf for us in the house. It was — and still is — a little haven frozen in time.”
Before she could even read, Drake said, she used to memorize excerpts from the books her parents read aloud.
“As a kid, I experienced a lot of racism at school,” she said. “For a lot of my childhood, I was very introverted, because I felt like I had to be really mature to be taken seriously. I felt like I grew up really fast and that impacted how much I shared what I loved with other people.”
Working on the book club project for the past few years, Drake said, has allowed the “little reader girl” in her to be a kid at last. Last summer, she picked up her childhood hobby of drawing again — something she set aside when her dreams of being a comic book artist dissolved.
On her iPad’s Procreate app, she drew a sketch of a “cute Navajo girl reading,” and it stuck with her. The drawing of that girl became the logo for the new book club.
The “book club” goes beyond the traditional definition of that term. So far, the club has three different moving parts: author readings and talks from Indigenous authors, such as Taté Walker and Darcie Little Badger; hosting youth writing workshops in tribal communities; and, most of important of all, books.
“We wanted it to be all about books and getting books in the hands of Native readers,” Drake said, “making sure Native lit was being read and supported by native readers.”
The name of the club, NDN, is slang Indigenous people use among themselves for “Indian,” but in this case, Drake said, it means “Non-Dead Native.”
The inspiration for the club goes back to Drake’s experiences and upbringing. In high school, she stumbled upon Indigenous literature — specifically, “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich — which set off a chain reaction of discovering Native authors.
“I realized there was this whole vocabulary and world of how to write about stuff that I knew as a kid, but didn’t know how to translate into writing,” Drake said. “I didn’t know there was a place for me in literature like that.”
The works she read, Drake said, talked about such things as their grandparents, boarding schools, riding with their cousins, ancestry and more. One common thread, she said, was, “specifically, generational trauma. Having the tools to talk about that completely changed how I wrote and how I read, and the types of books that I started looking for.”
Taking on the writing and reading sides of literature inspired her to start the book club, she said.
Part of her goal, Drake said, is to give Indigenous youth resources that she didn’t have as a child. For example, the club’s workshops and author talks are always free for Native youth. Also, the club plans to launch merchandise in March, to raise money to help get more books into the hands of Indigenous readers.
“When I was writing as kid, I had literally no idea that there were any kind of resources for young writers,” said Drake, who is part of the inaugural Indigenous Nations Poets fellow cohort.
“We’re trying to get kids confident in their writing to get them published,” Drake said. “We don’t want them to feel like they don’t belong in [the] publishing space.”
Indigenous writers have a long way to go to break into the book industry. According to a 2019 diversity baseline survey from Lee & Low Books found that Native Americans make up less than 1% of the staffs of U.S. publishing companies, review journals and literary agents. (The numbers are similarly small for other ethnic groups: 7% for Asian, south Asian and Pacifiic Islander people; 6% for Latinos; 5% for Black and Afro-Caribbean people; less than 1% for Middle Eastern people; and 3% for biracial and multi-racial people.)
It’s not that there’s a lack of talented Native writers, Drake said, but who the face of the publishing industry is — 76% white — and the lack of representation, which can be discouraging to young writers. Looking at that 1% statistic, Drake said, makes it easy to think there’s no point in trying.
“When you see the books that [Indigenous authors are] putting out when you read them, you feel represented,” Drake said. “You’re in these worlds that are so beautiful and so cared for by these authors — that can shift people’s motivation.”
For young people, especially, Drake says representation can be life-changing. That’s the point of the NDN Girls Book Club.
“[The book club] does bring me a sense of joy and fulfillment — to be able to connect with people over books,” Drake says.